Netflix's Nightflyers Season 1 Review

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If they ever decided to make Event Horizon into a TV series it would look like this

by Casimir Harlow Feb 3, 2019 at 11:10 AM

  • Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin's sci-fi horror Nightflyers plays out like a long-form version of Event Horizon.

    Although Martin originally wrote the short story - later expanded into a longer novella - in 1980, long before Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon, the retro-fitted comparisons are still valid, giving you a clear sense of what to expect from this sci-fi horror series. Previously adapted in 1987 into a commercial failure of a low budget feature, Martin still credits the production of the film with having driven his career - the result of which is now the mega-franchise Game of Thrones.

    Ironically coming full-circle, and undoubtedly due to the popularity of his Game of Thrones work, the Nightflyers short story has been revisited for this newly-commissioned series, released Stateside on the SyFy channel in December, but with worldwide (and secondary US) airing rights resting with co-producers Netflix.

    World building ideas, injected into a narrative which seldom offers answers, instead slow-burning whilst developing the threat from every direction

    The series is set in the future, and starts ostensibly where it ends, with a warning being sent to Earth not to try and rescue the crew of the clearly ill-fated ship, subsequently throwing you back at the start of the maiden voyage of the Nightflyer, whose mission is to make contact with alien life with a view to figuring out how to save the human race.

    Along for the ride is a highly dangerous telepath - who everybody is afraid of, but who may be the only way that they can communicate with other life forms. Things get even more complicated, however, when a series of deaths occur, with the initial blame being levelled straight at the telepath, although a more malevolent force might be at play - as the ship's eerie AI watches over everything and everyone, and the reclusive seemingly hologram-only Captain realises that he may no longer be in complete control.

    Netflix have a great hit rate for sci-fi and sci-fi horror features - particularly TV shows (Altered Carbon, Stranger Things, Travelers, Black Mirror) - and Nightflyers plays right into that, hooking you with its bloody The Shining-in-space prologue before hitting you with the densely crafted futurescape sandbox, replete with ship's engineers who plug into the ship itself in a body horror blend of the plugs out of The Matrix and the free-handed virtual control of Minority Report; garden pods a la Silent Running; ship failure disaster sequences like something out of Sunshine; demented spider droids that remind you of a deadlier version of the robots from Runaway; a creepy ship's AI (with red monitor lights) in the vein of 2001 (and, more recently, Netflix's Maniac); memory playback devices like out of an episode of Black Mirror; and haunted visions reminiscent of Solaris.

    Even if often feeling familiar, these are great world building ideas, injected into a narrative which seldom offers any kind of real answers, instead slow-burning the voyage whilst developing the palpable threat from every direction - is it the guy who can melt your mind from the inside out, or the hologram Captain who appears to have lost not only control but also perhaps his humanity, or the ship's AI which can't possibly be anything other than out to get them all, surely?

    The at-times almost Cronenbergian cyber-horror moments remind you that this is most certainly a sci-fi horror

    A bunch of familiar faces populate the cast, including Supergirl's David Ajala; Eoin Macken, recently in Netflix's Close; Boardwalk Empire's Gretchen Mol; Spooks' Miranda Raison; Angus Sampson from the Insidious franchise; The International's Brian F. O'Byrne; and The Last Ship's Jodie Turner-Smith as well as Teen Wolf's Maya Eshet. Although Macken's astrophysicist with a dark and horrific personal life (the slow memory-stripping of his wife back home is utterly heart-breaking) is placed front-and-centre as the lead, actually Ajala's initially elusive Captain is much more compelling, as is Jodie Turner-Smith, who gets put through the wringer repeatedly, and Maya Eshet, whose every interaction with the ship's systems looks equal parts automated and brain-frying. Eastenders' Sam Strike also makes for quite an interesting atypical cockney psychic, with some devastating powers that put a very different spin on just what X-Men's Professor X could do if he lost all morality.

    Nightflyers does well to craft some claustrophobic environments, nightmarish visions and distortions of reality, getting inside your head as much as it does its core characters. Its cast may not always be as compelling as on other shows - particularly with no big name draw here - but that's a good thing as you don't really know who is safe, who is evil and what on earth is going on; there are no preconceptions to come into play here.

    The backstories and character development aspects - the main character's relationship with his wife; the telepath's own fears; and the various complicated ties that bind the feelings of many of the crew members to one another - are surprisingly effective here, particularly the farther in you journey, whilst the at-times almost Cronenbergian cyber-horror moments highlight some genuinely disturbing ideas that pleasantly remind you that this is most certainly a sci-fi horror.

    Event Horizon may well be flawed, but it was also Paul W.S. Anderson's best film (Resident Evil is too tarnished by its sequels), so much so that he even tried - and failed - to rekindle the magic with Pandorum. The 1997 feature offered up a superbly entertaining sci-fi horror sandbox which, if utilised well, was a rich universe for mining. In a strange sort of way, Nightflyers allows exactly that kind of expansive study of Event Horizon's basic themes, drawing in more than a little 2001 too as it expands on the original short story which gave it its premise, but definitely focussing on the horror as much as the sci-fi. For fans of that particular sub-genre, this should certainly be next on your list to explore.

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